At one time or another, it’s happened to all of us – making a mistake while cooking!
Maybe you were able to catch and correct it on your own before anyone else noticed.
Or perhaps you had to swallow your pride and serve burnt tuna steaks that had taken on a striking resemblance to hockey pucks.
Not all of the results of common cooking errors are disastrous – sometimes, it’s just a flavor or texture that’s a little off. Or it could be a dish that’s a bit too bland, or oily, or dry.
Other kitchen botches are simply hand-me-down bad habits, because that’s how dear old Mum did it.
So, if you think some of your culinary efforts are falling a bit short, have a look at the following list to see if you’re making any of these common cooking mistakes.
We’ve scoured our own readers’ comments, gathered confessionals from everyone on our staff, and researched numerous online food forums to find the most frequent cooking issues.
Let’s have a closer look at some of these recurring kitchen blunders, examine what their causes are, and of course, reveal the solutions for healthier and smarter cooking!
21 Common Cooking Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
- You Don’t Read the Entire Recipe Before Beginning
- You Make Poor Substitutions for Your Diet Plan
- You Don’t Adjust Quantities when Subbing Fresh for Dried Herbs
- You Are Wasting Salt When Marinating
- You Always Forget to Soften the Butter
- You Aren’t Using the Right Oils for Cooking
- You Don’t Allow the Pan to Get Hot Enough
- You Crowd the Pan as You’re Cooking
- You Don’t Taste What You’re Cooking
- You Cook Veggies Until They’re Soft and Mushy
- You Struggle with Homemade Baked Fries
- You Can’t Boil an Egg to Save Your Life
- You Overcooked Your Pasta, Again
- You Can’t Make a Smooth Sauce or Gravy
- You Don’t Allow Rice to Steam After Cooking
- You Can’t Stop Your Fresh Salad Greens from Wilting
- You Attempt to Cook Tough Meats Quickly
- You Don’t Use a Meat Thermometer
- You Don’t Allow the Meat to Rest Before Carving
- You Don’t Slice Meat Against the Grain When Carving
- You Don’t Know How to Clean Your Cast Iron
1. You Don’t Read the Entire Recipe Before Beginning
Why is this one important? Because you really don’t want to be just a few hours away from serving your first Thanksgiving dinner for guests when you read the part about having to thaw the turkey in the fridge – for two days!
In our age of scanning headlines for information, it’s easy to miss out on important steps, utensils, and ingredients described within the body of an article or a recipe, particularly if we’re reading online.
You can bolster your cooking expertise by avoiding the common habit of making assumptions. And you avoid a good dose of embarrassment by being prepared!
Not only can omissions be embarrassing, skipping steps or leaving out ingredients can also result in dull, bland flavors, with tough textures and food that’s overly dry or too greasy.
To give yourself the best opportunity for success, read each recipe thoroughly, and do so well before it’s time to begin prepping.
And if there are videos or step-by-step instructions available with images – like we include in each of Foodal’s recipes – don’t skip those either!
Develop the wise habit used by professional cooks and chefs of having all of your ingredients, tools, and utensils in place and ready to go – this is your mise en place, which simply means to set in place, or to set up.
Not only will you know you have everything ready to make your culinary masterpiece, you’ll also know how much time to budget – because trying to rush dishes to completion is another common kitchen error that’s easily avoided.
If provided in the recipe, you’ll be able to estimate how long the prep and cooking process will take from start to finish by reviewing the recipe’s prep time, passive time, and total time estimates.
Being fully prepared before you begin the actual process of assembly and cooking is a time and pride saver, and your effort will be rewarded many times over.
2. You Make Poor Substitutions for Your Diet Plan
In some areas of food preparation, making a substitution is no big deal – but with certain cooking and baking methods, it can be!
Baking is as much about science as it is a creative endeavor. And precise amounts of ingredients are needed in order to facilitate the chemical changes that turn a bowl of runny dough into your favorite muffins.
If you’re trying to cook healthier, don’t make substitutions in cooking and baking that will undermine the integrity of the recipe, like switching out the type of flour without adjusting other ingredients as needed.
Instead, look for recipes that have been specifically created to suit a particular diet plan. You want to ensure that these recipes have been developed, tested, and published by reputable sources, at least until you become familiar with what’s involved in making certain substitutions at home.
For best results, follow the recipe without straying too far off the clear path.
3. You Don’t Adjust Quantities when Subbing Fresh for Dried Herbs
In most cases, the flavor of dried herbs will be more intense and concentrated than that of fresh herbs.
To benefit from the rich nuances of flavor that herbs offer, convert by using twice as much fresh herbs as dried, or half as much dried for fresh, depending on which way you’re adjusting.
While you’re at it, this is a good time to mention that, chances are, your spice cabinet is disorganized. This can be a hassle when you need to find a certain seasoning quickly.
Check out Foodal’s review of the best spice racks on the market, and clean up those cabinets today!
4. You Are Wasting Salt When Marinating
Maybe you enjoy the healthy technique of marinating your meats before grilling. But do you catch yourself sprinkling on far more salt than you anticipated after they’re cooked?
When marinated foods lack flavor, we tend to over-season at the table – which means piling on the salt!
The solution is simple: reserve half of the salt called for in the marinade, and wait to use it just before cooking.
There’s a way to keep sodium levels at a healthy level, and to save the flavors by using only half the salt called for in a marinade recipe.
The meat will only absorb a small amount of salt while marinating, and its seasoning impact goes down the drain along with the marinade when you’re finished.
Instead, sprinkle the reserved salt on the meat, poultry, or seafood when it comes out of the bath and just before cooking. Flavors will be enhanced and the salt will also help to create a beautiful, golden crust.
Give this method a try soon!
5. You Always Forget to Soften the Butter
A common oversight in baking and cooking, forgetting to soften butter is a simple mistake to fix.
Cut the amount of butter – salted or unsalted – that’s called for into small pieces and scatter them evenly on a plate. Allow to sit at room temperature for about 5 minutes, then proceed with your recipe’s directions.
You can also carefully and cautiously microwave your butter to soften it. Place the amount of butter you need for a recipe in a heatproof bowl and microwave on a low setting in 10-second increments.
Avoid a butter explosion in the microwave by monitoring its consistency after each and every increment of heating!
Or better yet, use a vessel to store butter at room temperature to keep your butter out on the counter.
Did you soften your butter too much? Just put it back in the fridge for 5 to 10 minutes until it hardens slightly.
6. You Aren’t Using the Right Oils for Cooking
It’s a confusing puzzle, isn’t it?
If you’re trying to eat a well-balanced diet, you’ve probably incorporated healthy vegetable oils into your cooking. However, healthy oils like extra virgin olive oil have a low smoke point, producing voluminous columns of smoke when sauteing on high heat.
So, you try a healthy oil like coconut with a high smoke point, but its strong flavor infuses some dishes with a nutty taste that’s not so great.
To avoid having a pantry full of bottled oils that aren’t getting used, and to use them in the most healthful ways, consider a few points before buying cooking oils:
Choose oils based on two main factors: flavor and smoke point.
Consider first how you want to use the oil – out of the bottle on salad greens, or for sauteing or baking, and then choose one or two that will best suit your needs.
Most unrefined oils have a lower smoke point, which make them unsuitable for cooking over high heat. However, they’re usually full of rich flavor, which makes them great for salad dressings or drizzling over veggies.
Olive, walnut, flaxseed, avocado, hemp, or almond oil are all choices with a distinct flavor that may be used to enhance salads. Other good choices with a more neutral flavor are grapeseed oil or canola oil.
For baking or frying, a refined oil with a high smoke point is the better choice. And unless you cook a lot in a particular style, choose a versatile oil with a neutral taste.
Sesame and coconut are strongly flavored oils with high smoke points.
Healthy oils that remain stable at high heat and have a light, clean, and neutral taste include canola, grapeseed, peanut, sunflower and safflower.
7. You Don’t Allow the Pan to Get Hot Enough
If you don’t allow the pan to get hot enough to properly sear or saute, you’re not allowing it to do its job properly!
A hot pan for searing is a valuable tool in the kitchen, but you must let it work as it was designed to. This mistake seems to have two possible sources: inexperience, or simply being in a hurry.
It is absolutely essential for a skillet to be hot enough for ingredients to sizzle, sear, and saute, or to create a crust. If a pan isn’t heated adequately, foods will stick, juices will leak out, foods will simmer instead of being seared, and browning won’t occur.
Think of what happens to skin-on chicken in a pan that isn’t hot enough – it’s going to be sad, soft, and rubbery!
Look for signs to indicate that your pan is hot: you can drip a couple drops of water into the center of the pan and see if they sizzle and quickly evaporate. If you’re searing something and need that high heat, you can also check if the oil you are heating in the pan is starting to smoke just slightly.
And again, don’t overcrowd the pan!
8. You Crowd the Pan as You’re Cooking
The level of enjoyment that eating brings us can be enhanced mightily by the senses of sight and smell. Appearance and fragrance can build anticipation and add to our satisfaction… or they can take away from it.
When we crowd too much food into a pan or skillet, the results are often soggy, or they look insipid and pale.
As food is cooked, it releases moisture. And if there isn’t enough space for the moisture to evaporate, it will stay in the pan, steaming or simmering food instead of frying or sauteing it.
When browning foods like meat or onions, the crusty, brown residue that forms in the pan is very important for imparting flavor, as well as for the aesthetics of presentation. The browning that takes place is known as the Maillard reaction, and it occurs when amino acids and reduced sugars combine to give browned foods their distinctive flavor and color.
Crispy, amber-hued crab cakes are much more appealing and tastier than ones that are pale and mushy from steaming as a result of overcrowding.
And a perfectly pan-seared steak is a jaw-dropping main course, all because you were disciplined enough to leave enough space in the pan between each fillet.
For best results, give your ingredients some breathing room in the pan. Cook in batches if you can’t get everything in at once. Or if you’re in a hurry, use two pans.
9. You Don’t Taste What You’re Cooking
Have you ever tried a new recipe, only to be surprised and disappointed by how bland or unappealing it is?
Chances are, you didn’t taste the dish as it was cooking.
When trying something new, we tend to assume the author is an expert and the recipe will contain exactly the right ingredients and instructions for us to obtain brilliant, outstanding results.
However, many factors come into play when cooking.
Variables such as the particular ingredients used, substitutions, altitude, the idiosyncrasies of your stove, the weather, and more all play a part in determining if your palate is going to be satisfied with your next home-cooked meal.
Testing through taste allows us to make adjustments on the fly, so we can steer our dish in the direction that’s going to be most pleasing for us, whether you need to tame the heat or add just a pinch more freshly ground salt.
After all, we’re the ones who are going to eat it, so it should satisfy our taste buds!
10. You Cook Veggies Until They’re Soft and Mushy
This is mainly a timing issue that can be remedied easily by adopting some simple cooking techniques and mastering a smart cooking plan.
As most veggies cook fairly quickly, make sure you strategize your timing. Depending on your chosen vegetable and its cooking preparation, you can often wait to cook until after you start preparing the other items on your dinner menu.
One fast and easy technique that doesn’t take up any oven space is to blanch your vegetables – but you have to be vigilant with your timing!
For crisp, bright veggies, add them into boiling water or a pressure cooker for only a handful of minutes.
Veggies such as green beans, asparagus, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts will all turn a vibrant color with a crisp texture in minutes. But if they have to wait for you, they’ll continue to cook and soften, even with the heat turned off.
The unpleasant result? Limp, mushy, dull vegetables.
Here’s how to keep their colors bright and the texture fresh and crisp:
When they’re finished cooking, immediately plunge your veggies into an ice water bath, or run them under very cold water, to stop the cooking process.
They will remain crisp-tender and vibrantly hued!
11. You Struggle with Homemade Baked Fries
Are your oven-baked fries excessively charred? Maybe they’re really limp and soggy? Maybe they’re both burnt and soggy?!
However, if done poorly, baked fries seem to turn out pale and wimpy, or they dry out and get burnt to a crisp – neither of which is a delicious outcome!
Heed our advice:
Your veggies need to be as dry as possible to prevent steaming, and each slice needs to be evenly coated in a thin film of fat.
Make sure your oven is set at a high enough temperature – the high heat will help to create a perfectly crisp crust.
Spread the fries evenly on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, which will help to absorb excess water.
And remember, don’t overcrowd your fries! Give them room to breathe, bake, and become golden-brown!
The fries should dance with the powerful heat, not stand in one place for the entirety of cooking! Flip your fries, and the pan, halfway through the baking time. That way, there is no risk of uneven baking.
12. You Can’t Boil an Egg to Save Your Life
Can’t peel a hard-boiled egg without taking big divots of the white with the shell? Do your eggs look like the surface of the moon?
While no method for peeling hard-boiled eggs seems to be foolproof, there are a couple of steps to follow that will give you very good results most of the time:
Add the eggs to boiling water. Starting the eggs in hot water, rather than putting them in the pot with cold water and then bringing it to a boil, helps to separate the shell from the egg.
Cooking times will vary, depending on the size of the egg and your personal preference for the yolk’s texture. For large eggs, about 6 to 8 minutes is a suitable range for soft-boiled eggs, while 10 to 12 minutes is a good range for hard-boiled eggs.
When finished, plunge immediately into an ice water bath. Allow to cool for 15 minutes before peeling.
And avoid using super fresh eggs, if you can help it.
If you raise your own chickens or buy from a local farmer, allow the eggs to sit in the fridge for up to 2 weeks before hard boiling, as very fresh eggs tend to stick to the shell.
13. You Overcooked Your Pasta, Again
If you constantly cook your pasta to the proverbial “limp noodle” stage, we can help.
The process of boiling pasta can be a bit deceptive, and it’s easy to use too little water.
And adding more water to the pot when your pasta is only halfway done is an excellent way to instantly destroy its delicate texture, resulting in limp and soggy noodles, since you are drastically lowering the temperature of the boiling water with this new addition.
Another common error is using a pot that is far too small, which won’t allow the pasta enough room to cook evenly.
For firm yet tender results, cook 1 pound of dry pasta in roughly 1.5 gallons of water.
And don’t worry about adding too much water, as it will be drained off when you’re finished. Using “too much” water won’t destroy the pasta’s integrity the way using too little will.
Use a large, wide mouthed pot that will accommodate both the pasta and water, one that will allow room for the noodles to cook without getting trapped or sticking together.
Wait for the water to come to a full boil before adding the pasta, and cook for the appropriate amount of time, according to the package or recipe directions.
As a basic rule of thumb, fresh pasta takes significantly less time than dried pasta to reach the perfect al dente consistency – so double check the instructions!
To play it safe, check a single piece of pasta about 1 minute before the allotted cooking time is complete. From there, decide if more time is necessary, and set another timer in 1 to 2-minute increments.
And you can also prepare different styles of pasta in the electric pressure cooker for another easy method.
14. You Can’t Make a Smooth Sauce or Gravy
Is your sauce or gravy turning into a lump mess? Oh no!
Everything else for your lovely dinner is ready, but the gravy looks as though it’s been infected with some sort of doughy pox… and there’s just no hiding those bobbing white lumps.
What happened? Well, there are a few reasons for lumpy gravy.
Adding flour, or any thickener, directly into a hot liquid such as broth or stock will cause lumps, as will adding hot liquid too quickly into a roux of flour and pan drippings.
And if you’re making gravy in a large roasting pan, hot spots may also cause the flour to fail to integrate into the sauce.
In any sauce or gravy where a starch is used to add body and texture, the thickener needs to be added slowly to the hot liquid, stirring as you go until the desired consistency is reached.
You can also make a slurry first, which helps to evenly distribute starch in liquid. To create a slurry, whisk together the starch with some cold water, and then slowly pour and whisk this mixture into your hot liquid.
For a roux, the heat has to stay low as the liquid is slowly incorporated to thicken without lumps.
And the type of thickener you use will also affect how it should be incorporated!
For more thorough information to help you, read all about how to choose and use the best thickening agents for soups, sauces, and gravies.
And our recipe for a classic mornay sauce dives more deeply into making the perfect roux.
It might take a few attempts to develop your skill set here! If lumps still happen, you can save the day by pouring the gravy through a fine-mesh strainer, or puree it until smooth with a hand-held immersion blender.
15. You Don’t Allow Rice to Steam After Cooking
Rice is one of the most common grains eaten by a large part of the world’s population, yet cooking a pot of fluffy rice seems to be one of the great challenges for many a cook!
Gummy, sticky rice is a very common complaint – unless you are intentionally making a glutinous preparation, like warm and comforting congee.
For great tasting rice with a light texture, make sure you rinse the rice thoroughly under cold running water to remove any milling agents and excess starch.
Place the rice in a strainer, and rinse under cold water until the water runs clear through the grains.
And don’t skimp on steaming! When the cooking time is complete, without removing the lid, turn off the heat and allow the rice to sit and steam for another 5 to 10 minutes.
This essential resting period allows the trapped steam to finish the cooking process, resulting in separate grains rather than a gummy mess.
If all else fails or you just want to simplify things, you can always invest in a rice cooker.
And all rice grains are not created equal – each style will require slightly different amounts of water and time to cook.
We highlight a range of options for cooking rice in our guides that you can review now. Study our stovetop tips, or check out how to cook different varieties of rice in the pressure cooker.
16. You Can’t Stop Your Fresh Salad Greens from Wilting
There’s no denying that sad, soggy salad greens are a big bummer, and really unappetizing to look at on your plate.
To keep your freshly made salads looking and tasting their best, the following tips will help:
If you’ve washed your greens, they must be dried immediately, as excess water will result in soggy greens and watery dressings with a thin taste. The water can also potentially repel the oil in an oil-based dressing, leaving a puddle in the bottom of the bowl.
Use a salad spinner to quickly and easily dry your greens, or blot gently with paper towels or kitchen towels, taking care not to bruise the delicate leaves.
Once your salad is made, don’t add the dressing until you are ready to serve – this ensures your greens will stay crisp and fresh for as long as possible.
As we have all experienced when taking home dressed salad leftovers from a restaurant, greens that sit in a liquid for a long period of time will become limp and lifeless.
When preparing salads at home for a party, you can choose to serve the dressing on the side of the undressed salad for diners to use as much or as little as they desire.
If you prefer to dress a salad before serving, pour the dressing along the sides of a large salad bowl and toss to coat. Pouring onto the bowl rather than the salad will result in evenly coated ingredients, so you won’t oversaturate your salad.
And it’s always best to use less dressing than you think, at least at first! You can always add more after tossing, but it’s nearly impossible to remove excess dressing.
Chilling your salad plates before serving will also help to keep greens fresh and crisp.
17. You Attempt to Cook Tough Meats Quickly
If a recipe calls for a dish to simmer for an hour or more, cranking up the heat and boiling hard for 20 or 30 minutes should do the same job, right?
Ummm, not so much.
Unless you enjoy chewy, tough, and dry meat, that is.
This is another very common cooking no-no, and it usually occurs when we’re in a hurry or haven’t read the recipe all the way through, missing important info on cooking times.
Simmering refers to a very gentle, low boil with only a few bubbles breaking the surface at any moment. This low and slow heat is required to gently cook the meat while allowing it to tenderize, by breaking down the muscle tissue – and it simply takes time to accomplish.
Braising is another cooking method that requires time and patience, in which the majority of the cooking is done at a low temperature in the oven with liquid in a closed cooking vessel.
Take a look at our red wine braised beef for a classic example of this style.
You just have to accept that some dishes take time to develop – so choose your recipe wisely depending on how much time you can dedicate to the cooking process.
You can also learn how to master using your pressure cooker, which will help you cut down on time if you have a perpetually busy schedule.
18. You Don’t Use a Meat Thermometer
One of the least expensive but most valuable kitchen tools, the meat thermometer, is sadly underutilized.
As a result, cuts of meat, large roasts, hefty meatloaves, and delicate poultry are cooked incorrectly. Without knowing the internal temperature, they may still be raw in the center, or they may be overcooked, dry, and tough.
How are you able to tell?
The easiest solution is to invest in a meat thermometer, because it eliminates all of the guesswork when determining doneness.
Read this thorough review of our favorite meat thermometers, and learn about proper food safety and how to use and care for these valuable kitchen tools.
19. You Don’t Allow the Meat to Rest Before Carving
It’s hard to wait to eat, particularly if you’re hungry and the food smells so good!
But if you don’t allow meat and poultry to stand before carving, all of the delicious juices will drain out, leaving your roast or bird with dry meat.
Giving the meat time to rest after it’s cooked helps to redisperse the juices back into the meat. Cover loosely with foil to keep the food warm, and set aside until ready to carve.
Be sure to allow enough time:
- For smaller cuts like a steak or chicken breast, rest for about 5-10 minutes.
- For a large whole birds, racks, or roasts, rest for about 20-30 minutes.
Do your best to be patient – you and your guests can nibble on an appetizer or two to quell your growling stomachs!
20. You Don’t Slice Meat Against the Grain When Carving
Cutting against the grain of a cooked piece of meat when serving seems to go against the grain of our natural instincts.
However, cutting with the length of the grain, or the muscle fiber of the meat, can result in unnecessarily tough and chewy results.
For delectable and tender pieces, cut across the grain, not with it.
In other words, cutting against the grain of the meat means slicing with the blade of your knife perpendicular to the muscle fibers of the meat.
By cutting through, and thus shortening, the muscle fibers with each slice, you will yield more tender pieces that are easier to chew.
21. You Don’t Know How to Clean Your Cast Iron
I know. It’s not easy for some of us to put a pot or pan away if it hasn’t been washed thoroughly.
But if you’re washing your cast iron cookware every time you use it, chances are you’re washing off the seasoning. And it’s this seasoning that produces a natural nonstick surface, protecting the pan from rust.
To clean a cast iron pan, there are multiple methods you can employ – the most important consideration is that you must immediately dry your cast iron to prevent it from rusting.
If you wash your cast iron with water and dishwashing soap as a last resort after preparing a particularly messy dish, give it a light re-seasoning before it goes back into the cupboard.
We have plenty of reading material for you to review so you can gain confidence in using and caring for this mighty piece of kitchen equipment.
Read more about cleaning and caring for your cast iron, and if you’re in the market to buy a new pan, learn all about the pros and cons of these rustic relics compared to pans made of other materials.
Tighten Your Apron, and Get Back in the Kitchen
That’s the end of our look at 21 of the most common cooking mistakes, and how to correct them!
Regardless of the outcome of your culinary errors, don’t feel discouraged!
Rest assured, rookies and seasoned kitchen vets alike, we all make our fair share of cooking gaffes. To err is human after all, and any endeavor undertaken on repeat may result in a bungle or two.
It’s natural, and it’s a big part of how we learn – continue your culinary adventures, and learn from your mistakes…
All of them!
If you have any other pressing cooking issues, leave a comment below. It’s a great way to find the specific solutions you’re looking for in the kitchen!
Hungry for more cooking advice? Familiarize yourself with our other informational how-to articles. From prepping and storing ingredients to mastering different kitchen tools, we’re here to help! Start with these:
- How to Use Your Refrigerator’s Crisper Drawers
- How to Use Each Side of a Box Grater
- How to Prep Onions
Photo by Meghan Yager, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos via Shutterstock. Originally published on on October 17, 2015. Last updated on February 8, 2023. With additional writing and editing by Nikki Cervone.
Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.